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Did You Hear the One About the Seaweed?

Israeli company Seambiotic is using a new environmentally friendly technology to create a product contingent on the color green.
 
Seaweed, that slimy organism that wraps sushi and coats fish tanks, is being brewed by Seambiotic in eight open pools on property belonging to the Israeli Electric Company (IEC). The company’s smokestack emissions, otherwise polluting carbon dioxide, are being redirected to "feed" Seambiotic’s algae, a product which goes on to feed animals, humans, and – when used as biofuel – car motors.
 
And while the CO2 might be dirty, the seaweed certainly doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, Seambiotic’s chief technical officer, Herman Weiss, says using CO2 emissions from the electrical power plant not only prevents the pollutant from being released into the atmosphere, but it has proved two to three times more effective than using "clean" CO2, the primary element needed for algae growth.
 
Seambiotic, founded in 2003, grows marine micro-algae primarily for livestock feed and nutritional supplements for humans, an estimated $5-6-million-a-year industry. It can also use algae to create biofuel, a renewable energy source produced from biological resources such as plant biomass. Biofuel includes ethanol made from corn, sugar cane, wheat and other crops, in addition to biodiesel made from vegetable oil.
 
By using recycled CO2 emissions and focusing on a few unicellular algae that contain high-value products, Weiss says Seambiotic’s pilot system, located on a quarter acre of IEC land in the central city of Ashkelon, is both low-cost and highly productive.
 
Seambiotic is not the only company that has turned what would otherwise be considered pollution into potential energy.
 
Producing algae for biofuel is currently a very innovative, but not yet economically viable, research and development project being pursued worldwide. Increasing demands for oil and growing pressure to cut the harmful environmental impact of conventional fuel burning has boosted biofuel use in recent years.
 
As in the smokestack-feeding algae Seambiotic and other companies produce, crops that are used for biofuel consume CO2 as they are grown, offsetting the CO2 the fuels release when burned. The result is an arguably "climate neutral" fuel.
 
The challenge, however, is creating a new alternative – and economical – biofuel, one that can both supplement dwindling global supplies of petroleum and replace already commercially available biofuels that are based on in-demand agricultural products.
 
Algae has been dubbed a promising alternative: it does not compete as a global food source like corn and it can grow quickly in diverse conditions with minimal maintenance – requiring basically just sun, water and CO2.
 
"Once you find the means to modify [algae organisms] genetically so that they can produce ethanol or higher biomass, you have something very robust that you do not need to maintain, with no competition with food demands for the other plants," says Avigdor Scherz, professor of plant sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Technology.
 
U.S. company, GreenFuel Technologies, which has just started to work in collaboration with Seambiotic, has been leading the industry’s seaweed-to-fuel initiatives, having developed algae bio-reactor systems to convert CO2 from smokestack emissions into renewable biofuels.
 
"The idea is not new, but how to make it a feasible project or an economically feasible industry, this is the big question," says Amir Drory, head of R&D at Algatech, an Israeli company working in partnership with GreenFuel to provide the algae side of the biofuel equation. The company specializes in micro-algae derived products for the nutraceutical and cosmeceutical industries.
 
Seambiotic’s answer to the question of economic feasibility is threefold.
 
First is Seambiotic’s algae cultivation and production technology, the cost-cutting power of its dirty – and free – CO2.
 
"The most important thing in growing seaweed, especially for bio-energy, is reducing the costs of production," explains Weiss. "And the central portion of the cost of growing algae comes from the supply of CO2.
 
"In working in symbiosis with Ashkelon [Israeli Electric Company], we are reducing emissions of C02, which is a global issue, and on the other side, we are getting material that doesn’t cost us anything from the electricity company. Without this CO2, we wouldn’t be able to talk about this topic – it’s what makes it possible for this to be so cheap."
 
Weiss says that 20 years ago it cost $100 to produce one kilo of algae, compared to the current cost of $2 per kilo. These costs can be decreased even more in the next five to 10 years, believes Weiss, making biofuel production a more economical option.
 
Second is finding the right algae. Seambiotic is currently testing three types of algae from a selection of 40,000 potential organisms, including the Skeletonema and Nannochloropsis strands, all of which have very high added value that could be a good fit for producing bio-ethanol. Last month Seambiotic filed patent applications for its cultivation technology as well as for one such algae strand, currently not grown on an industrial level anywhere in the world, says Weiss.
 
But what is of key importance, adds Weiss, is that the nutritional supplements and animal feed that are Seambiotic’s primary products are a means to the potentially revolutionary end of algae as a source for biofuel. These products serve as profitable middlemen, justifying the costs of the production system and facility, allowing "left-over" algae to be used to produce biofuel.
 
By creating a cost-effective system to produce algae, Seambiotic hopes it will be able to produce energy from algae on a commercial level in the near future. It’s a challenge of cost effectiveness and efficiency that several biofuel and algae production companies are currently attempting to overcome.
 
"At the moment, I don’t see in the coming years that we will be able to produce bio-energy at economical costs unless we do something else in the middle in addition," says Weiss. Seambiotic will eventually expand its quarter-acre pilot operation to 25 acres, and then finally to 1,000 acres – although probably not in Israel, notes Weiss.
 
Harold Wiener of Terra Venture Partners, one of Algatech’s original founders, has been involved with algae-to-fuel projects in Israel for the past 20 years. He is currently looking to invest in such a project, citing the theoretical potential of the industry, but notes the ongoing challenges in making algae-based biofuels an economical energy alternative. A project he was involved with 20 years ago collapsed because the price of producing fuel was just too high.
 
"There are problems, even today, in making good fuel from algae," he says. "Even if I am looking hard [for a project to invest in], because my heart is with the algae, it will be absolutely challenging and very, very difficult to find a project which can show profitability even in the long term, because the algae is a very, very spoiled micro-organism that needs all kinds of conditions that are difficult to achieve and cost a lot of money."
 
Even with its environmental benefits, nobody, says Wiener, would sell biodiesel without economic incentives.
 
In Europe, where an estimated 80-90 percent of the world’s biodiesel is produced, tax exemptions and national targets are what general drive the biofuel market. According to the European Biodiesel Board (EBB), there are approximately 120 plants in the EU producing up to 6 million tons of biodiesel annually.
 
"Unfortunately, since the price of biofuel is higher than other conventional fuel, the demand is led not by economic competitiveness but by the presence or absence of an appropriate legislative frame[work] supporting the marketing of biodiesel," says EBB secretary-general Raffaello Garofalo.
 
In addition to mandatory targets and legislative measures, tax reductions have been the traditional subsidy offered in Europe to promote biodiesel, which Garofalo says costs about 50-70% more to produce than conventional diesel. 
 
"So although it is good for the environment, for CO2, for independence of supply, [without subsidies] it’s too expensive and nobody would buy it," he says.
 
While research into finding less expensive biofuel is ongoing, the problem, says Garofalo, is that processing and transforming raw materials into bio-ethanol or diesel is an extremely expensive and burdensome process. It requires large quantities of material and complex chemical processes. This is exactly the challenge Seambiotic and companies like it are facing.
 
"The problem is only a problem of technology and economical feasibility," says Wiener.
 
"It’s a matter of optimization. It’s a matter of amplification and resources and investment," says Scherz, who believes that to make the algae-based biofuel feasible, a robust organism that can thrive in different temperatures and that requires minimal maintenance needs to be engineered. In addition, he says, the industry needs to develop an effective way to collect solar energy and an algae cultivation system that allows producers to create shortcuts the photosynthetic process to get a higher yield of ethanol or biomass.
 
Algae is not a quick answer to the demand for renewable energy, says Scherz.
 
"Right now, if you want to find a quick solution, you go to plants that already, after a small number of steps, can produce energy," he explains, adding that algae is a feasible solution in theory, but that it is just a matter of investing the research money and time to develop it. 
 
"What actually should be done is to learn the secrets of these higher plants, and invest a lot of effort in this alternative, which I believe is the right one."